Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Trigger warning: rape

In case you haven’t heard of Mr Chedwyn Evans, let me give you a bit of background. A Welsh footballer who played for his national side as well as various league clubs, he was charged in 2011 with rape after a friend took an intoxicated 19 year old woman back to his hotel room and later invited Evans to join him. Evans gained entry to the hotel room by lying to the night porter, later leaving by an emergency exit in an attempt to keep his presence a secret. The jury acquitted Evans’ friend MacDonald, who had taken the victim back to the hotel. However they found Evans guilty of rape after the prosecution successfully argued that the victim, who suffered memory loss due to her level of intoxication, would have been unable to consent to sex with him.

Evans applied for leave to appeal twice in 2012 and was refused both times, with one judge quoted as saying “We can see no possible basis which would justify us interfering with the verdict of the jury”. In 2014 Evans appealed to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, an independent body whose responsibility is to examine whether miscarriages of justice have taken place. Fewer than 1% of cases investigated by the CCRC result in the Court of Appeal upholding an appeal.

In October 2014 Ched Evans was released from prison after serving half of his 5 year sentence. Soon afterwards the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) asked Sheffield United football club (SUFC) to allow Evans to train at their ground as they were the last club that employed him. SUFC agreed to this, sparking public outrage. Several club patrons resigned in protest and 2 sponsors made their displeasure known, with one threatening to remove their sponsorship if Evans was re-signed to the club. In addition the Olympic gold medallist, Jessica Ennis-Hill, demanded that the club remove her name from their stands if they decided to employ Evans once again.

On the 20th November 2014 SUFC announced that they had withdrawn permission for Evans to train at their ground. In part of their statement they said “As noted in previous statements from the Club, the legal system of this country provides for both the punishment and the rehabilitation of every person who has been found guilty of a crime. Sheffield United will not be used to promote the view that professional footballers should be treated differently, as has been the want of certain sections of the media and various commentators….The Club is aware that Ched Evans is pursuing legal recourse via the Criminal Cases Review Commission in the determination he has to clear his name. We trust that he will be afforded a fair hearing”.

The PFA have since released their own statement, part of which stated “We maintain our general position that the courts determine punishments and a return to society and a contribution to the community through employment is a key element of rehabilitation. We do not agree that society should impose different rules for footballers which go beyond the position of the law. In that regard, it is hoped that Ched will be given an opportunity at another club to return to the job he is trained to do”.

Both SUFC and the PFA seem to have completely missed the point of the recent protests. It has nothing to do with treating footballers differently, nothing to do with Sheffield United and in fact has nothing to do with football at all. It has to do with a convicted and unrepentant rapist being allowed to return to the career where thousands of people, including children, look up to him. If Evans had admitted his crime and shown genuine remorse then this probably wouldn’t be an issue. But you cannot rehabilitate a criminal who refuses to acknowledge that they have done wrong. It just doesn’t work like that.

SUFC’s hope that Evans “will be afforded a fair hearing” seems particularly disingenuous when you consider that he has attempted to deny wrongdoing 3 times already through the British legal system and has failed each time. Most people would consider that he has already had a fair hearing. In addition, Evans has so far failed to even attempt to rein in his supporters, many of whom abuse and threaten women who speak against Evans. This hardly helps his case. Neither does the fact that so few rapists are ever convicted of their crimes – approximately 1%. What are the chances that the police, CPS, jury and multiple appeal judges all managed to convict an innocent man of rape? Infinitesimally small.

I have no problem with Evans seeking employment. What I, and many others, do have a problem with is an unrepentant rapist continuing in a role where he is idolised. If he had been in many other careers he would have been barred from continuing his employment, and rightly so; however he would be free to seek other employment just as he is now. He hasn’t taken that option though, instead attempting to continue his life as it was before. Of course this isn’t a choice offered to his victim, who after being abused, hounded, named and hunted by Evans’ fans has had to change her name and move away from her family for her own safety.

By even considering allowing Evans to resume his career, the PFA and FA are making a rapist’s job more important than the experience of not only his victim but all victims of sexual violence. They seem to be saying that Evans’ ability to kick a ball is more important than a woman’s right to go about her life unmolested. And that’s what all the furore has been about. Not SUFC, not football, but a woman’s right not to be raped and the inappropriateness of a rapist as a role model.

So what do you do?

I really hate this question. At social gatherings, in the school playground, chatting to people at the park, occasionally even when I’m doing the shopping – it keeps popping up like a particularly persistent meerkat. And I never know how to answer it. “I’m unemployed” or “I’m a stay-at-home mum” are both true statements but they only cover part of what I do. The same goes for “I do volunteer work” and “I write”. The trouble is that people usually only ask this question as a way of politely extending a conversation or so they can mentally file you in the appropriate box. They want a brief, concise answer and I don’t have one.

So what do I do? Well, the main thing I don’t do is have a paid job. I haven’t since the birth of my daughter in 2009, when I had such severe PND that I was unable to return to work at the end of maternity leave and eventually lost my beloved job as a result. Since then my mental health has never been good enough for me to return to formal employment. Many (including myself in harsher moments) would label me a benefits scrounger, someone spongeing off the state and hard-working taxpayers.

And yet I work hard. I work hard to support and care for my husband as he struggles with bipolar disorder and what can sometimes be crippling anxiety. I work hard to look after our two children, ensuring that they are healthy and happy. I make sure our meagre income covers the bills as well as paying for healthy food and adequate clothing for a pair of ravenous, growing youngsters. I keep our home clean and relatively tidy. I do voluntary work a couple of mornings a week, I write, I take the children to playgroups, parties, parks, the beach, days out. And I do all of this while dealing with my own mental illnesses (and hiding that fact from the children), and suffering from chronic back pain. Of course DH does these things too when he can but there are often times when, through no fault of his own, he can’t.

It’s hard. It’s really bloody hard. I’m lucky to have supportive family close by who help out when I need them. I have supportive friends at the end of the phone or online, and a brilliant GP who always makes time to see me if I need her. But I don’t fit into the neat little box that society would like me to. And I still don’t know how to answer the question.

Am I on your radar?

Trigger warning: suicide

Today the Samaritans announced the release of a new, bespoke app called Samaritans Radar. This will email people when someone they follow on Twitter is discussing depression, suicidal thoughts or similar key words. Their website states “Our App searches for specific words and phrases that may indicate someone is struggling to cope and alerts you via email if you are following that person on Twitter. Radar will then offer you guidance on what to do next.”.

I have no doubt that Radar is well-intentioned but it has caused a fair bit of upset in the mental health community. There are numerous reasons for this disquiet, not least that amongst several different press releases there isn’t one aimed at mental health service users (ie those of us who are actually mentally ill).

For me, there is a difference between someone encountering a distressed tweet and responding, and someone who is actively monitoring you for such tweets. The latter feels invasive and intrusive. It’s not dissimilar to the contrast between bumping into a friend in the high street, and following that friend down the high street so you can engineer an encounter. There is also a risk that this app could be used to target vulnerable individuals; I have at least one friend who is outspoken about her mental illness and receives all kinds of abuse as a result, even (sometimes especially) when she is in crisis. What a boon this app is for people like her abusers!

Another objection I have is that I, as the potential subject of this app, have no way of knowing who is monitoring me through it. In fact the Samaritans proudly trumpet that “The people you follow won’t know you’ve signed up to it” and having carefully read the press releases there seems to be no way I can stop people using the app to watch me. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Another disconcerting point from the press release is this:

image

Why do the Samaritans feel the need to store a count of flags against my (as someone being spied on through their app) Twitter ID, what purpose does this serve and what will they do with such data? In addition, why do they want to store the identities of a Radar user’s friends? And why shouldn’t I know who’s using this app to monitor me so I can block them?

I know some would say that as all my tweets are in the public domain I have no grounds for concern; that people who follow me are watching me anyway. To a degree this is true. But when I tweet about feeling depressed, hypomanic, anxious or suicidal the last thing I want is to know that emails are immediately being sent to anyone who wishes it. The support and kindness I’ve received from Twitter users is lovely but it’s by chance when someone has seen something I’ve said, not because someone is targeting me to see when I’m in distress.

I’ve already seen several people say that they now feel unable to be open on Twitter as a result of this app’s launch and I have sympathy for that stance. It’s going to be like having someone watching over your shoulder all the time. It makes vulnerable people feel more vulnerable and more likely to suffer in silence instead of opening up. If there was a way to prevent your followers from watching your account with this app then I think my objections would largely disappear. But as it stands all the Samaritans have done is make me feel less safe, not more. Please, if you follow me or anyone else with mental illnesses on Twitter, do not utilise Samaritans Radar without asking permission.

You probably don’t even remember me, but you were the reason I cried myself to sleep that night. You probably can’t even remember what I look like, but I remember how you made us feel. I felt so embarrassed and humiliated that I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I’m a grown woman, but I wanted to hide myself in a corner and cry. I hope your little moment of amusement was worth it.

We’d had a lovely evening, until we happened upon you. We laughed and chatted with the waiter between courses as we enjoyed a relaxed, romantic meal together on the first evening of our holiday. We held hands and gazed into one another’s eyes as we relished the time alone together; time to relax away from work, and home, and family, and all of the pressures of modern life. We smiled at one another when the waiter addressed us as “ladies”, having the courtesy to correctly gender my partner despite it being obvious she’s in the early stages of transition from male to female.

Transgender. That’s what my partner is. She’s someone who, having been assigned male at birth, spent many years of her life struggling with the feeling that she was being forced to live in a gender she wasn’t comfortable in. Someone who, after having been forced to conform to society’s expectations of how a boy – and then a man – should think, feel and behave, found the courage to be true to herself. It’s nothing to do with her sexual preference, a traumatic childhood or some kinky fetish, it’s who she is.

Stop and think for a moment, you two gentlemen who laughed at us as we were minding our own business. Stop and think how comfortable you would feel stepping out of your front door in a dress, make up and heels. Imagine how it feels to feel that you have no choice but to put yourself out there, in public, with a man’s face and body dressed in women’s clothing. Contemplate how awkward, lonely and potentially dangerous every single mundane task becomes when you have to expose you innermost self in such a public manner, and when you have to dare to be different.  Can you even begin to imagine how crushing it must feel, having tried so hard to look passable and found the courage to face complete strangers dressed in a way that makes you feel both vulnerable and conspicuous, to be laughed at in public by fellow adults? I say “adults”, but really you two were like children in a schoolyard. Children who pick on a child for having the ‘wrong’ trainers, or whose physical abilities are different from yours, or who doesn’t generally conform to your expectations of how other people should be. Please think about what you did: You reduced a grown woman (me) to tears, you tainted our whole evening with your cruelty and you knocked the confidence of two people who’ve spent a very long time trying to develop what little confidence they have. I hope your little joke was worth it.

Perhaps you’ll feel less ashamed or even vindicated when you hear that you weren’t the only people to treat us so badly. Perhaps you’d try to justify your behaviour if you knew that are others out there with similar prejudices, and a similar lack of respect for feelings of others.  Your contemptible behaviour was amateur compared to what we experienced the following evening, when a family of six fellow diners in a restaurant not only mocked us, but took and shared photos for one another to laugh at. Good work, people. This is the monster that a culture of laughing at people who are different creates.

The strength and courage my partner shows on a daily basis amazes me. She faces the same fears, the same prejudices and the same humiliation every day. Every. Single. Day. And yet with each new day, she puts on a brave (and beautifully made-up – I like to take the credit for her excellent make up skills) face and does it all over again. Why does she do it? Because after forty years of feeling forced to pretend to be someone she’s not, she’s finally free to relax and be herself in a way you and I probably take for granted.

She’s brave, my beautiful girl. She’s brave, and funny, and wise, and kind. She shows a generosity of spirit that you so clearly lack; a tolerance and respect for others that you would do well to learn from. She’s not asking for your approval or for your support. She’s simply asking for the respect we all owe to one another; she’s asking to be left to go about her life without being humiliated in public and treated like a freak show. She might, in your eyes, be a man in women’s clothes. She might be different to anyone else you know, and she might have made choices in her life that you cannot even begin to understand. She might be all of those things, but she’s not a coward or a bully, and so I’d rather be her than you any day of the week.

Signed,

Me

This week the Sun, that proudly misogynistic excuse for a newspaper, launched a campaign called No More Skinny. Fronted by 3 supposedly famous men (I haven’t heard of any of them but then I’m not really the Sun’s target demographic) it claims to be demanding that model agencies and fashion shows stop using models who are “stick-thin”. Now, the idea of campaigning to stop the promotion of generally unattainable thinness & the normalisation of disordered eating is one I could definitely get behind. But I’d that’s the case, why not call it “No more skeletal models” or similar? Well, because No More Skinny is all about men’s perceptions of women’s bodies . I shouldn’t be surprised, really, seeing as this comes from the “newspaper” that considers soft pornography suitable for a supposedly family-friendly title. The intentions of the campaign’s apparent founder, Dan Wootton, may have been good (he writes in this article that as a gay man who struggles with his weight, his concerns are genuine) but the result is not.

Mr Wootton’s co-campaigners are Olly Murs and Professor Green, and their attention seems focused on the attractiveness of the women concerned. “Sometimes skinny women can look attractive – but it is too dangerous. It is ridiculous when you see size-six, even size-four, girls on stage” worries Mr Murs. Professor Green (real name Stephen Manderson) chirps helpfully that “The most important things are health and happiness” and frets about women (he calls them girls but I assume he means women) who crash diet and have unnecessary cosmetic surgery. At some point Marilyn Monroe is cited as a desirable body shape.

And this is why the No More Skinny campaign is so useless. It’s not about discouraging the use of skeletal models, it’s not about encouraging girls and women to be body confident whatever their shape, it’s not even about the dangers of restricted eating and excessive dieting. It’s about what men find desirable. Let’s ignore the fact that female bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes – some naturally thin, some naturally podgy, most somewhere in between. Let’s ignore the objectification and othering of women that the Sun encourages on a daily basis. Let’s instead focus on what men find desirable in a female body and campaign for that.

For years women have been given conflicting messages about what men find attractive. There are two main points I wish to make about this. Firstly, men find a variety of body shapes attractive, they’re not a legion of robots programmed to admire only one type of figure. Secondly, and far more importantly, women and girls are far more than merely a lump of flesh for men to judge as aesthetically pleasing. Women run, walk, rest, have sex, dance, bear children, climb, work and many other things – and at no point is the superficial appearance of our bodies relevant, only their function.

Body confidence is just that, having confidence in your body. It doesn’t necessarily mean loving every inch of it nor ceaselessly working to maintain it. But it does mean finding the strength to ignore what society says is desirable and focusing on what works best for you. Ignore No More Skinny, ignore “real women have curves” (which always makes me wonder if non-curvy women are imaginary or maybe holograms) and use the body you have. Tall, short, fat, thin, hourglass, apple, pear, taut, wobbly, buxom, athletic, whatever your body looks like the only person whose opinion about it matters is you.

My pain

Today I am angry, I am heartbroken and I am self-pitying. Why? Because after almost a year of bearable pain, the last couple of days have seen me once again reduced to sitting or lying very carefully, walking very slowly while leaning heavily on my stick and trying not to sneeze, cough, laugh or do anything else that will send lightning bolts of pain through my body.

The reason for this sudden degeneration is very simple; on Saturday I bathed the children. That’s it. Usually DH does bathtime because I struggle to but on Saturday I decided that for once I was going to have the fun of doing it. And now I’m paying for it.

This makes me so, so angry. After 18 years of gradually increasing back pain you’d think I’d be resigned to this but no. I want to play with my children properly, getting down on the floor to build farms and railway tracks and roll around with them. I want to be able to sweep them up into my arms without having to steel myself against the pain, I want to run around with them playing football and chase, I want to take them for rambles across the countryside. I want to do normal mum things, I want to live my life without the constantly nagging companion that is pain.

It’s not fair. I know I sound childish and petulant but I don’t care. I don’t want this any more. I have spent more than half my life in constant pain; I had been in pain for 8 years before I had my first MRI scan, it was another 9 before I had a proper diagnosis. I’ve tried osteopathy, acupuncture, all kinds of physiotherapy, pain management clinics, cranio-sacral therapy, experimental therapies, you name it I’ve tried it. Painkillers are either ineffectual or so strong that they make me vomit constantly. My husband and children have never seen me without the spectre of pain and I doubt they ever will.

I know that I am far more fortunate than many, that have much to be thankful for and I am, believe me. But right now none of that matters because I am in pain, emotional as well as the gut-wrenchingly physical. This pain has been wearing me down a little more every day for 18 years and I don’t want it any more.  I don’t want my husband to have to help me dress and get to the bathroom on days where I can barely move, I don’t want my children to have to be careful around me in case they hurt me. I don’t want it and right now I am so furious that I could just scream all this pain and heartache at the universe. Instead I’m typing these words through angry, frustrated tears because I know that there’s nothing I can do to change this. There are no practical treatment options at this time.

And I can’t even have a proper tantrum about it because stamping my foot would hurt too much.

It’s been a while…

(For the background to this post please read Consequences).

Well, after a month or so without blogging or feeling comfortable talking openly about my mental health on Twitter, I’ve had enough. I refuse to hide any more. The woman who reported us has contacted me in order to confess; it seems that she genuinely (however misguidedly) believed that the children truly were at risk. Thankfully Children’s Services have made it very clear that they have absolutely no concerns and have indicated that they will treat any future complaints from this woman with caution.

So after having a break in order to think things through, I’m back. Through the unwavering support of pretty much everyone I know, whether online or off, it has gradually become clear to me that the importance of speaking out against the stigma of mental illness far outweighs the risk of another misguided report to the NSPCC. That this happened at all (despite the fact that I am stable, that DH and I are both in regular contact with healthcare professionals and that we have family close by who both help and support us) merely shows just how far we still have to go before mental illness is treated the same way as physical illness.

Of course, the irony of all this hasn’t escaped me. My writing about mental illness and its stigma has led to DH and me being accused of being unfit parents because of the stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s almost funny. Almost.

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